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Paper Bag Singers

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A number of folk around the Cathedral in Fredericton are keen to start what is known as a Paper Bag Choir, that is, a bunch of folk who like to sing but "can't carry a tune in a paper bag".  This would include those who, at some time in their life, have been told they can't sing.  Has anyone any experience of such a group and could pass on any tips, including repertoire?


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Been there - done that!  In truth it was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done and it all turned out, amazingly, remarkably well! 

This was a church group which became a highly successful church choir!  I started with unison tunes - getting them to sing, firstly, a basic response to a Responsorial Psalm was an effort! I wrote vast amounts of stuff that presented different challenges. I made them learn quickly and then perform - verses for in between a  multiplicity of Alleluias before the gospel  - that kind of thing! A simple unison Mass setting. Some of it was awful music but it fulfilled a need.

Lots of them didn't read - and so everything was done by rote - memorising - but, always with the music, and a pencil, with them. I encouraged them to write on the copy - gave them a number so they got the same copy each week. Be firm - but in a jocular way - don't let them argue with you "If you want to argue go and join that lot down the road - and see where it gets you" (said with a smile on your face - ('that lot down the road' were awful!!!) Make them sit in the same place every week - stronger ones next to weaker ones! 

Part singing started off as Ladies v Men - I always started with the bottom part - persuading the men that it is the 'tune' - then I put another part on top! Eventually it went to four parts - but it took some time - about a year and even then it was shaky!

Favourite phrases heard: "No, you can do better than that" "Listen to what you are doing", "Sing with your ears", "It's not good enough - let's try again!" ………………………………. "Well done, that was not bad!" and the Grandaddy of them all "Excellent, it's coming on!

I gave them opportunities for performance - lots of them! It will 'up your heart rate', when they do perform, and sometimes it will go wrong! - but, eventually, they will have no fear and just get on with it - no matter what you put in front of them! Success breeds success and, eventually, better singers turn up and the whole thing lifts to another level. I made sure everyone, from the strongest to the weakest, was valued - including the little old lady who you have never heard sing a note but turns up week after week!

 It's a long time ago now - and in a different place - I still have the photograph, on my desk, of them all in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome - singing the Byrd Four Part Mass! Some, quite a few, have 'gone to another place'. From not being able to sing a simple tune decently to singing Missa Papae Marcelli in the Cathedral in Palestrina, one Friday night in 1991 amidst a tremendous thunder storm, took ten years. It is still talked about in the village and I thought they did pretty well.

All the best David! 

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And I forgot - make it fun too! Arrange 'Social' events! "the choir that sings together drinks together"  The meal in Le Grizzli in the middle of Paris, the night before singing in the Sorbonne, is still talked about in the village - as is the challenge of the drinking contest between the bell-ringers and the choir!! 

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